Amanda Gouws is a Professor of Political Science and holds the South Africa Research Chair in Gender Politics at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.  She is a feminist activist and was a Commissioner for the South African Commission for Gender Equality from 2012-2014.  She has published widely on women and citizenship, women’s representation and women’s activism and movements.

If you live in South Africa as a woman you live with a sense of pervasive gender based violence. Women’s bodies are the battlegrounds for men’s rage, men’s entitlement, men’s sense of their own dehumanization, men’s “corrective rape” of lesbian women and the list goes on. For some of us feminism has been empowering, but for others feminism has always been suspect in South Africa.  Given the history of our liberation struggle an older generation of women compromised the gender struggle to ensure an end to Apartheid and usher in racial liberation.

Then, 21 years down the line the “born free” generation (those children born after democratic transition in 1994) looked at their inheritance and asked “what difference does it make to our lives if no decolonization had taken place”?  And so the “decolonization project” was born.  It started with the #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town. This campaign was an indictment of the lack of institutional transformation in tertiary education institutions in specific, and in other institutions in general.  Students drew on the Black Consciousness tradition of Steven Biko[1] and on the writings of the Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon[2].  They exposed marginalization, exclusion and black pain to raise consciousness about the impact of colonial symbols and legacies.  One of their first demands was the removal of a larger-than-life statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the epicentre of the campus of the University of Cape Town.

Central in this struggle were young black African women.  They were out there in the trenches with the men, shutting down the university, having sit-ins and occupying buildings.  They were fierce and formidable. And they embraced a feminist label.  They call themselves radical intersectional African feminists with the slogan: “Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”.  Rhodes did fall.  He was removed on 9 April 2015. The campaign morphed into new demands like #FeesMustFall and #FreeEducation and spread to all campuses around South Africa that brought the tertiary sector to its knees at the end of 2015.  Fees fell for 2016.

In all of this women were the allies of men in the struggle, yet gender based violence did not take a break, it found the women in the trenches, abandoned to sexual violation.  One morning South Africa woke up to the RU Reference List – a list of the names of eleven alleged rapists on the campus of Rhodes University in Grahamstown.  Women students claimed that these men had been involved in ongoing violations of women’s bodies without any repercussions. They sat in class with them, they walked the streets with them, they continued to harass them.  Women wanted action taken against these men.  The institution pushed back, making claims of the violation of the men’s rights and reputational damage through untested (in court) allegations.

It was then when the women took off their tops and their bras and took to the streets topless, bare breasted brandishing sjamboks (whips). In the South African historical context sjamboks were often used on the bodies of slaves and black labourers.  It was the beginning of the #EndRapeCulture campaign.  It spread across the country with dizzying speed to most universities, with anger and rage in its wake.  Women were claiming back their bodies and their sexuality, but the anger was also directed at the men who were missing in action as allies in the #EndRapeCulture campaign.

These were no ordinary slutwalks.  They were not a fun-filled marches and the performance of sexuality to reclaim the right to wear certain clothes or the freedom of sexual expression.  On the contrary – these marches reflected anger and resentment about voiclessness and ongoing violation of women’s bodies. As Nguyen[3] states slutwalks leave in place the structure of subjugation and leads to a normalization of the sexualisation of women’s bodies, especially where perceptions of women’s sexuality were formed in conditions of colonialism under the colonial gaze.

Signe Arnfred[4] articulates colonial understandings of sexuality in Africa in the Introduction to her book Re-Thinking Sexualities in Africa as follows:

The thinking beyond the conceptual structures of colonial or even post-colonial European imaginations, which have oscillated between the notions of the exotic, the noble and the depraved savage, consistently however constructing Africans and African sexuality as something ‘other’. This ‘other’ thing is constructed to be not only different from European/Western sexualities, and self, but also functions to co-construct that which is European/Western, as modern, rational and civilized.

Pumla Gqola[5] in her book Rape a South African Nightmare elaborates on these processes of othering and the formation of race through sexual violence. She argues that race was made through sexual violence that centres on the shaming of women through slavery, colonialism and the conquests that accompany this. Shame is a function of oppression, a product of the dehumanization of black women.

In contrast to the function of Slutwalks black women’s sexuality is policed through skin colour rather than dress, which is used to police white middleclass women’s sexuality. Black women’s bodies have been sexualized through slavery in a way that is not applicable to white women.  Black women do not have the luxury to call themselves sluts, without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the black woman is[6].  Nakedness of black women’s bodies is not for titillation because historically nudity was used to shame, disempower and discipline women and men sold as slaves.

In 2016 nudity shed the shame and struck fear in the hearts of many men (and women) about women who have stepped outside their assigned “place” in the racial and gender hierarchies in South Africa.  In some places it caused a moral panic, with demands that “dangerous” women cover up.  On many campuses it raised more consciousness about gender based violence in a few weeks than organized attempts by university administrations managed in years.  Rape culture Task Teams were appointed, rape culture workshops were arranged, universities started to tidy up their grievance and complaint procedures. And men began to understand that rape culture means a pervasive normalization of violence through the little infringements and micro violations that happens on a daily basis.

These dangerous women are well summarised by Darlene Miller[7]:

The young black women smashing through the barricades of patriarchal society are not alone in Africa.  They form part of a rising tide of women activists who are questioning African patriarchal leadership… The attire of the young, predominantly black activist women (when they have their clothes on [and off]) makes loud statements that symbolically scream at society: ‘We are here and we have been invisible for too long!’



[1] Biko, Steven I write what I like {] (Accessed, 2 February 2017).

[2] Fanon, Frantz (1963) The Wretched of the Earth. Presence Africaine

[3] Nguyen, Tram (2013) “From SlutWalks to SuicideGirls: Feminist Resistance in the Third Wave and Postfeminist Era”, Women’s Studies Quarterly, 4:3/4., pp157-172.

[4] Arnfred, Signe (ed) (2004) Re-Thinking Sexualities in Africa.  Uppsala Nordic Africa Institute

[5] Gqola, Pumla (2015) Rape – A South African Nightmare. Johannesburg: MF Books

[6] Nguyen, p 161.

[7] Miller, Darlene (2016) “Excavating the Vernacular: ‘Ugly Feminists’, Generational Blues and Matriarchal Leadership” in S Booysen (ed) Fees Must Fall.  Johannesburg: Wits University Press, p272-273.